This recording of Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" is a rousing testament to the combined talents of three West Chester, Pennsylvania based church choirs: the Chancel Choirs from Westminster Presbyterian Church, Calvary Lutheran Church, and singers from the Chancel Choir of First Presbyterian Church. This double CD set offers listeners a unique rendering of Mendelssohn's classic oratorio. Mendelssohn never got the chance to hear what would have been the most magnificent performance ever staged of "Elijah" at that time; he died on November 4th, just 38 years old - only weeks before a planned performance of "Elijah" in Vienna with one thousand participants. Mendelssohn would have appreciated the spirit and energy found in this new recording.
Westminster's musical director Robert Morris hosted this special combined concert. "Elijah" was performed in Westminster's sanctuary on April 26, 1998 before a standing-room only audience. Guest conductor Robin Frenz, noted Professor of Voice and Choral Conducting at West Chester University and former Minister of Music at First Presbyterian Church, brought her considerable talents to the project. Featured soloists were Howard Wood as Elijah, Drucilla Schutte, Kendra Werner, Lee Fisher, Helen Fisher, Barbara Wray, Beverly Hess, Pam Ring, Susie James, and Barabara Simpers. "Elijah" featured accompanists Glenn Kinckner on piano with organists Linda Lorgus accompanying part 1 of the program, and H. Ray Hunsicker accompanying part 2 on Westminster's 3 manual Shantz pipe organ. Sean Kennedy is the featured timpanist.
Frenz made the most of the group's 2 combined rehearsals, the only opportunities they had together. These new CDs are positive proof that these three separate choirs and four instrumentalists came together and melded into one powerful voice. These Elijah Choruses thunder and crackle with emotion; the give and take of the Arias and Solos alternately evoke plaintive imagery and uplifting messages of hope. These musicians have indeed placed their own distinctive signature on Mendelssohn's challenging oratorio.
Two aspects of this recording distinguish it from virtually all other recordings of "Elijah." The first is sound. There is a strong ensemble presence in these CDs, a sound quality that has been described as "right up front" almost as if the voices and instruments were hiding just behind your speakers.
Modern classical recordings are normally made in controlled recording sessions with the music being recorded onto multiple tracks that are later mixed down. Recording engineers Jeffrey Knapp and James Walck faced multiple challenges; budgetary constraints prohibited multitrack recording and "Elijah" was to be presented live in front of a recording audience. The solution was to mix the performance live in stereo and record it straight to DAT.
A total of eight microphones were utilized. The goal was to create a strong, even mix of voice and instrument, yet preserve the natural aural perspective of the concert - to capture the sound one might have experienced sitting in the fifth row. One listen to "Elijah" suggests these goals were largely realized. Listening to these CDs with a good set of headphones reveals the wide stereo imagery particularly well.
Another distinction with "Elijah" is instrumentation. The orchestra commonly associated with this composition is absent. Instead, pipe organ, grand piano, and timpani accompany the 140 voice choir, resulting in a less "symphonic" feel. Without the strings there is more of an immediacy and dynamic quality to the music, very likely a departure from Mendelssohn's original idea. It works; the combined sound of organ and piano are an effective backdrop for the voice. Mendelssohn might well have been intrigued.
As with all live recordings, there is a quality to this performance that is absent in any staged recording session, which is the "reality" of the moment - the true interplay of music, musicians, and audience. In all, there are many things that make this presentation of 'Elijah" unique, and well worth a close listen.